Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Decline of Violence?

I recently read a book by Steven Pinker on why violence has declined, both worldwide and in Western culture, over the millennia and even within the past century. Here’s a part of my review of this book in my November newsletter:

“THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, by Steven Pinker. Pinker is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, a psychologist, author of THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, HOW THE MIND WORKS, and THE BLANK SLATE. As the author acknowledges, the first reaction of many readers may be disbelief in this book’s major premise, that violence HAS declined. He lays out in great detail examples throughout history, backed up by exhaustive statistics, to demonstrate that the contemporary world does in fact suffer from much less personal, official (such as harsh legal punishments and torture by governments), and international violence than any prior era. As a percentage of the world’s population, death tolls from these causes have steeply decreased. I was mildly dubious about war, but he does have the statistics to support his position, and one can’t argue when he points out that we haven’t had a war between major powers in over sixty years. Conflicts between smaller nations (as opposed to civil wars) have also become less frequent. Concerning terrorism, a high-profile phenomenon whose actual death toll is negligible compared to all other forms of carnage, it, too, has been around for millennia but has declined from its historical peak. As for the reduction of other kinds of violence, Pinker is clearly right, and, equally significant if not more, our toleration of it in North America and western Europe has conspicuously decreased, not only from preindustrial centuries but even from the mid-twentieth century. He attributes this trend to several factors but most prominently to the rise of centralized governments that suppress violence within their borders through their official monopoly on the use of force. He also discusses at length the “humanitarian revolution” that began with the Enlightenment. Two chapters, “Inner Demons” and “Better Angels,” explore in depth the psychological, social, and cultural factors that influence our behavior toward violent or peaceful expression. Particularly interesting to me was the section on the biology and psychology of self-control.”

Although this book comprises almost 700 pages not counting bibliography and index, it held my attention throughout (except that I confess I didn’t study the graphs and charts). Pinker is a lucid, lively writer with a gift for making technical topics understandable to the general reader. He convinced me that our perception of the twentieth century as the most violent in history is mostly an illusion of perspective (it looks that way because we’re so close to it), and in fact things have actually gotten better. He assesses the devastation of war in proportional terms rather than only in terms of absolute numbers and points out that, contrary to popular belief, traditional hunter-gatherer societies didn’t live in Edenic peace. The percentage of the total population who died as a result of raids and battles far exceeds the comparable statistics (as a percentage of population) in modern warfare. As for violence on a more personal level, there’s no contest. Up through the early modern period, criminals could be condemned to death for petty offenses, torture was an accepted judicial procedure, and slavery was universally legal. Today the first doesn’t happen in “civilized” nations, and the last two are illegal worldwide (when they do happen, they’re condemned by public opinion). Even within the lifetime of some of us here, domestic abuse and rape have been treated as fit subjects for humor. Now their victims’ demand for justice is taken seriously. As Pinker mentions, in some areas the pendulum has swung so far that “political correctness” has grown to ludicrous heights, but regarding it as a sign of our culture’s attempt to treat people fairly, consider the alternatives. I don’t buy every one of Pinker’s assertions, and I think his section on the ancient world is a bit weak (conflating myth, legend, and fiction with real-world violence), but I definitely recommend this book.

If you’re as taken aback as I initially was by the premise that our world is becoming steadily less violent, you’d probably find THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE as intriguing as I did.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Margaret,

    Some months ago, there was a radio advert on Siruis XM by a marketer who demonstrated good marketing with an example of telling us that sperm counts have dwindled, and that our grandfathers had ten times (something like that) the sperm count of modern men.

    Is it possible that a decline in male fertility is linked to this decline in violence?

    Are women also less violent?

  2. That's an interesting question, Rowena. Pinker didn't address it directly, as far as I remember, but he did emphasize more than once that males are by far the more violent sex. A major predictor of the amount of violence in a culture is the proportion of young men in the population.